By Forrest Carr, RTDNA Contributor
This anecdote will date me, but I’ll tell it anyway. One day the phones at the TV station where I was employed as a producer started ringing off the hook. Because I was slaving way on my newscast, I was not at first inclined to help answer the calls. But the assignment editor gave me the stinkeye and shamed me into it. As soon as I took my first call, I found myself listening to a woman who berated me soundly for having interrupted her soap opera. As it turned out, we weren’t responsible. Instead, our network had done it, pre-empting General Hospital for a report on the Beirut marine barracks bombing, which as you may recall killed more than 200 U.S. military personnel. I tried to explain to her the importance of bringing Americans this news about what had happened to their Marines, but she refused to hear it. “Get that crap off the TV,” she insisted. “And bring me back my soap.” One person’s treasure, and all that. I was so enamored of that call that I fictionalized a version of it for my novel. There were many other callers behind that one, waiting for their turn to beat us black and blue—I’d venture to say we dealt with hundreds of really displeased people that day. At the time I thought of each and every one of them as a drooling idiot. In retrospect, I can’t sustain an indictment of their intelligence, only of their commitment to civic awareness and involvement.
So it was with some degree of sympathy that I recently read reports about a pair of small market TV anchors who decided to rip their viewers a new one for having dared to complain about the newsroom’s severe weather cut-ins. It is not my purpose today to embarrass anyone, so I will omit names and station call letters. But one of the anchors was clearly very irritated. “No show is as important as someone’s life,” she scolded. “Exactly,” her co-anchor agreed. “It’s a TV show. I can live with you missing it.” His then co-anchor continued, reminding viewers that they could go onto the network website to watch any programs they had missed. But she pointed out that the station’s special coverage had saved lives. “We weren’t going to go on the air if it’s not important.” She then told viewers flatly to keep their objections to themselves. “Please don’t call and complain. It’s not nice.”
Let’s start with the statement that the station would not have gone on the air if it hadn’t been important. We news directors would all like to believe that’s always true. But let’s face it. It’s not. Often we make decisions to interrupt programming for events that do not feature life and a death drama or an immediate threat to public safety. Our viewers know this. If you try to tell them anything different, your words not only will sound insincere, but also contemptuous of their intelligence.
In this station’s defense, however, the coverage was in no way frivolous. The video bore out that a tornado was on the ground, and that the danger had been very real. But even if nothing more than a radar sighting without confirmation of a funnel on the ground had prompted the report, a cut-in still would have been justified. So should a station in such a situation defend itself?
Yes. In my opinion, any news organization that wants to be relevant today must have a mechanism for responding to public criticism. In the 21st century social media age, you can’t duck incoming missiles and mortars from viewers. They’ll post their broadsides right on your Facebook page. So unless you plan to have an employee monitor your social media full time and immediately delete any negative comments, you can’t avoid a black eye here and there. That means your options are to (1) ignore the complaints or (2) engage. Because social media are all about engagement, I vote the latter.
In doing this, it’s important not to sound offended, whiny or defensive. It’s especially important not to display any disrespect for the viewers, even if you find that to be a personal struggle. To borrow an old adage, viewers may be hard to live with, but try living without them. They are your customers. Giving you feedback is their right, one that you disregard at your peril.
In crafting a response, it helps if you have already written and posted a statement of ethical and coverage principles. But if you don’t have one, don’t let that stop you from responding, because you can invoke the commonly understood public service mission under which most broadcasters operate. (As a side note, I would also urge stations to craft a policy about the conditions under which the news department will interrupt programming. Not all interruptions are equal. For instance, it’s one thing to interrupt the first five minutes of a drama or game show, but quite another to interrupt the last five. There are different forms and levels of interruption that would allow you to break in while still getting the job done. News directors, this is one on which you’ll want to involve your GM).
Here, then, is your blueprint for action:
- Acknowledge the complaints.
- Cite the relevant portion of your values statement or public service mission.
- Show how you believed your actions were consonant with that statement. (And if they weren’t, here’s where you offer an apology.)
- Invite further feedback.
- Do it all with a smile.
You can publish this response via either a posting on your website and/or Facebook page, or by way of an on-air announcement, or both. I would not recommend ad-libbing this. The news director, and perhaps some of his or her advisers, should be involved in the copy creation.
Using these principles, a web posting or on-air statement acknowledging the complaints in this instance might have looked something like this:
“Last night our station made the decision to interrupt network programming to bring you a special report about severe weather in our coverage area. Many of you contacted us to complain about the interruption. Some of you pointed out that the bad weather was nowhere near your neighborhood. Our coverage mission contains a strong commitment to public safety. In addition, FCC regulations require broadcasters to serve the public interest. It is with those thoughts in mind that we made the decision to interrupt programming. Regrettably, because we are a broadcaster, it is not possible with current technology to target only those areas under immediate threat. We also have a commitment to listen to you, our viewers. We value your feedback about how we’re doing, and we promise that we do read every comment. We invite you to let us continue to hear from you.”
Some viewers will not be mollified by any message, but that is not the point. The point is to engage, which will make your station more relevant. It’s a way to make you stand out from your competitors—and believe me, in the increasingly crowded media field on which we all play, that has never been more important. Sometimes over the years, I’ve had viewers respond to messages of this type by inviting me to take a long walk off a short pier, or with similar, even more pointed thoughts. But more times than not, I’ve had them say that while they still don’t agree with whatever station action it was that prompted the complaint, they appreciate getting a response. In fact, more times than not viewers have been so impressed with hearing back, especially if I’ve contacted them personally by email, that they’ve retracted a vow never to watch again and have stated that I’ve won a loyal customer. In any case, I submit that in that in today’s media world, an engaged viewer—even an angry one—is better than a disinterested, disengaged one.
So, bottom line: embrace the pain. Have a plan to respond to those pesky viewers. And use it.
Forrest Carr has worked as a television news director in Arizona, New Mexico and Florida, and as an ethics fellow at the Poynter Institute. He can be reached at forrestcarr99 at gmail dot com